Sunday, August 28, 2011

Pushing the Limits

Released from duty at the most civilized time of 2pm when the rest of the crew would likely be staying until around 10pm on a show night, I hopped into my car happily knowing that I had at least one (maybe two) days off.  Oh, I could get so much accomplished!  (Yes, yes, we all know it’s all I can barely do to hit the Mickey D’s drive-thru in my jammies on an entire hiatus week, but hey, this girl dreams HUGE!) And nestling Cecilia into her space next to the neighbor’s white picket fence adorned with flowering bougainvillea, placing her gear into “park” and turning off her ignition, all was right with the world.
…until I made THE classic Cosmic rookie mistake…
“I’ve got the EASIEST job in the WORLD!” I squealed out loud to Cecilia whilst protectively clasping her shiny red “The Club” onto her 1997 steering column.
But before I could even begin to try to rewind and suck the words back out of the spoken-word-world, they had already taken effect. 
(It’s been my experience that nothing pisses-off The Universe more than taking anything for granted!) 
Already the red demonic glow had returned to my purse pocket containing the cell phone; already I had missed two calls and one text; and entering my home I found the landline already blinking its own private crimson voodoo hex.
“Hey Pen, wondered if you happen to be available to work tomorrow.  I’m running around a lot so just text me.”
Hmm…   Pajamas?  Paycheck.  Pajamas?  Paycheck. Voodoo curse?  Paycheck.  (One would have thought this was a no-brainer, but yeah, “paycheck” finally won after a five minute mental debate.)
“Great!” my AD called back.  “So you’ll be standing-in for one of our recurring guest stars who is HYSTERICAL!  We need you for the table-read and we’ll see how it goes from there and whether or not we use you for the next two days.  We’d like to give you a hundred dollar bump for the day, and messenger over tomorrow’s script to you tonight, plus a couple of DVDs so you can get a feel for her character.” 
Wallowing in my future incoming riches like Zsa Zsa Gabor in pearls and a silk nightgown (sweat pants and a t-shirt), and hearing that my script was about to be hand-delivered as I lolled on a chaise lounge enjoying a pedicure (one of our PAs called from outside while I was playing with my kitty’s toes), I gave permission to the guard outside my gated compound to allow the driver onto the secure premises (I padded outside and accepted the envelope). 
All that remained for the evening was to sit back, watch approximately 66 minutes of comedy, read a script and manage to make my way into work the next day by 11:00am.  Easy-peasy!
Unfortunately, as The Universe would once again have its sadistic comedic way with me for taking even my simple evening for granted, I discovered much to my dismay that not only did my main DVD player die for no reason whatsoever, but also that the drawer for DVDs on my laptop had apparently been cursed by Lord Voldemort during a previous viewing of a Harry Potter film and subsequently obstinately refused to open.
(Aww, C’MON!!!)
Scurrying off in a mild panic to Best Buy for an emergency DVD player, friendly sales associate Steve approached me most calmly.  “How can I help you?” he asked as I dabbed some unpleasant sweat off my upper lip.  And telling him what I needed, what TV I had at home, and asking for the simplest possible installation, he guided me to a $40 box and one cable to connect, showing me the input/output thingamajig so as to make the process even simpler.  And with sincere gratitude, I thanked him profusely for his knowledge, his time and all of his help.
Having (repeatedly) watched three episodes of our guest star the night before, I felt I had a decent sense of her unique comedic delivery.  Certainly I would never be able to replicate her facial expressions by any means, but having the opportunity to hear her, I was feeling rather pressure-free heading off to the table reading in the Green Room.
Eying the placard with my name printed on the back, my character’s name on the flip-side for the “audience”, I took my designated seat at the front of the room, aluminum water bottle by my side, pencil in hand.  (I thought it was a nice touch to look professional as I scanned my script for the millionth time.) 
I could feel my heart pounding a bit – not so much from anxiety at my introduction to a seasoned Network who were unfamiliar with my abilities, but moreso from my poor choice of having half of a nerve-calming ciggy before ascending a gazillion stairs.  (Stupid, stupid, stupid!  Pink-lunged-youth of the world; don’t smoke!) 
Yet I was confident that I was prepared.  After all, if I totally sucked then I already knew in advance I’d be replaced.  At least I’d still have a hundred bucks for my troubles!  In truth, all I really had to do was stick loyally to the script, focus, keep my head down while the VIPs filed in and avoid eye contact with absolutely everyone.
(This is a technique I discovered decades ago as I watched a new-comer to the Biz attempt to hug/schmooze each and every Suit in the room.  FYI to new-comers, Suits don’t want to be hugged.  Suits don’t want to be your friend.  Suits don’t even want to be approached.  Suits simply want you to do your job as a meat puppet, make them laugh for less than half an hour and then be out the door in time for their lunch reservations.  I speak from first-hand knowledge having witnessed such a horrific display of inappropriate affection, and found myself standing-in for the fired unfortunate new-comer exactly one hour after her well-acted table read.  Good actress!  Bad sense of boundaries…)
But I digress!
“Penny’s gonna read her part?  Good for you Penny!” my lovely Actress cheered sincerely as the rest of the cast began to take their seats. 
*insert shot of my thankful beaming smile at her for her confidence in me*
Punching me casually on the shoulder, another cast member wandered by offering a ‘knuckle bump and blow it out’ greeting as he welcomed me back with a nonchalant “good to see ya again!”
*insert shot of proper ‘knuckle bump and blow it out’ with said tiny blonde actor who clearly didn’t realize that I wasn’t the actual guest star, nor did he recognize me from being on set the day before (or the last two weeks)*
“You too” I responded awkwardly as he walked away, turning my attention immediately back to the script whilst hoping beyond hope for no further eye contact or interaction with anyone else.
And feeling the presence of our lead Actor taking the seat to my right, I continued to burrow my face in the script until I couldn’t withstand it any longer…
Adopting his signature furrowed brow, tucked-in chin and eerie smile (whilst mentally drilling a hole into my cranium with his penetrating stare) I had no physical choice but to eventually glance up and meet his steely gaze.
*insert shot of absolute mortal terror*
“Good morning Penny” he nodded officiously in character with one raised eyebrow.
“Good morning” I replied cautiously (terribly uncertain as to whether or not this was yet another Cosmic punishment), as he continued to stare all the way into what might have eventually become a seriously creepy moment.
“Oh, I’m just messing with you!” he finally smiled normally, putting me at ease and actually making me feel welcome like a new teenager at the Adult’s table on Thanksgiving Day.
In the end, I guess I did OK.
I was invited to continue to stand-in for our guest star for the next two days ($100.00 bump per day!!!); my lovely Actress had graciously complimented me on my comedic delivery, and even Mr. Furrowed Brow had patted me heartily on the back, adding a spontaneous “way to knock it out of the park, kiddo!”
Surviving both the Producer and Network Run-Thrus Thursday and Friday, I once again wheeled Cecilia next to the white picket fence as the purple bougainvillea welcomed us home in full bloom regalia.
Perhaps challenging the Cosmos was a good choice!
Maybe I had made some sort of significant soul-enriching advancement by boldly standing-in/standing-up to The Universe.
I was brave!  I was strong!  Nay, I was COURAGEOUS!
And whipping out a Friday New York Times crossword puzzle to further prove my brilliant ‘genius-ness’, I filled in precisely one answer before my eyes went woozy and without any warning whatsoever, fell immediately asleep adrenaline-exhausted mid-afternoon with my kitty for the next two and a half hours.
(Perhaps it’s best not to push The Universe too much…)
Cheers to overcoming whatever may challenge you today,

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


Skull and crossbones backpack stuffed with my usual supplies, I wandered uneasily onto the Sony Pictures soundstage like a bespectacled pimply kid who’d just been transferred to a brand new school district.  “Good morning!” I smiled to all the unfamiliar faces who were already sizing me up as a potential unwanted nerdy intruder on the Closed Set an hour and a half before the Popular Kids were scheduled to arrive.  But having anonymity on my side, they all smiled back politely just in case I happened to be a newly appointed Principle.
Meandering the length of the enormous stage to have a look at all the sets I was trying to “own” my right to be there; but my inner teenager was struggling, ears beginning to burn red with anxiety until I happened upon the Second AD who had initially called me to ask my availability.  And hugging him like a second cousin who might escort me to the prom, I clung to him tightly as he began polite introductions. 
“Can you do a computer voice?” the First AD immediately wanted to know before I inasmuch had said hello.  “Here, on this page” he added, plunging a script into my hands.  “Give it a try.”
(Day one and I get a pop quiz; go figure…)
Scanning the dialogue I let fly with the first choice that came to mind.  “No, too sexy” he commented.  (Wow…  I have never been accused of that!)  “Try it more computerized” my Performing Arts AD Teacher continued, as I robotically annunciated the verbiage.  “Somewhere in between…” he leaned back in his chair, fingertips touching together in a symbolic triangle still waiting to hear the perfect ‘ting’.
“I’m a great mimic!” I assured him, knowing that if I heard what he was trying to elicit from me at least once, I could more than likely nail the cadence. 
And with a down-loaded audio sound bite for me to imitate from some odd on-line program off his personal laptop (don’t want to know, don’t need to know…), I reverted directly back to my real teenage years of annoyingly mimicking random people on the TV set in our Indiana family room.
“Perfect!” the ADs laughed in two-part harmony.  “OK Pen, so aside from the computer voice, I also need you to be the “Bartender”, the “Ordinary Girl” at the bar and the “Speaker” at the funeral”, they told me as I frenetically scribbled my to-do homework on the script within the next few hours before the Writer/Producers descended upon our Classroom.
As last year’s self-appointed Second Team Homecoming Queen had abandoned her peers in favor of reigning over a new school district, I hovered quietly in the shadows as I’m wont to do.  The Popular Crowd were arriving intermittently (as they are wont to do), and rather than greeting them voraciously I kept my distance.  As the new kid on the block, er, lot, I had no interest in slipping on the sash and tiara and trying to fill the silver sneakers of the prior notoriously boisterous Queen.
So not surprisingly, when I unobtrusively appeared on the set to perform as both the self-confident “Bartender” as well as the less-than-glamorous “Ordinary Girl” in my first encounter with three of the starring Actors, they never so much as noticed that I happened to be the same person portraying the parts of two drastically different characters.  (My first real test and I got an A+!!!)
I was an acting genius!  I was Meryl Streep!  Nay, I was Katharine Hepburn!  Perhaps I’d need that Prom Queen sash and tiara after all! 
Glissading humbly off the set (as any brilliant Actress feign-glissades humbly) and seeking no public recognition whatsoever, I attempted a moment of potentially accolade-related ‘surprise’ as someone whispered quietly in my ear:
“Just so you know, the Actor on the left is great after he’s comfortable being around you for awhile; and the two on the right are very sweet, just kinda, um, ‘scatter-brained’.”
“Oh” I replied, pushing my bookish glasses up on my nose, retreating once again back into the library of shadows; a sudden realization occurring that (thankfully?) the Popular Crowd had neither officially accepted nor rejected me.
And for my first half day at a well-established School, anonymity was once again my best friend.
Hearing the cue to speak for the computer voice whilst our lead Actors performed their scene, I stood innocuously off-stage delivering the lines as scripted in the dialogue.  Yet after our initial endeavor, there was suddenly much discussion regarding the proper timing of when the “computer” should be heard, and again my teenage ears started reddening.  Had I royally screwed up already?  Would this lead to immediate detention, or worse, expulsion?
I had already begun to try to figure out the proper explanation on my next unemployment form as to why I’d been canned when the Director turned to me and offered his hand.  “I don’t know you” he smiled pleasantly, “and you are?”
And greeting him with all due respect, I shook his hand as well as both of the lead Actors who took the moment to graciously introduce themselves warmly.  “I think we’ll err on the side of caution, and let the Writers hear their words immediately rather than pausing for our Actress to hit the ‘enter’ key at the Run-Thru.  So do exactly what you did Penny, and we’ll adjust as needed when we go on camera.”
(My second test, and I’d call it a solid A!)
By day two, I was feeling a wee bit more comfortable in my new Home Room.  A couple of my fellow Second Team members who had been there for five ‘years’ had taken me under their wings protectively and properly schooled me with the Cliff Notes of ‘What You Need To Know about our Long Running Network (not cable!) Television Series’.  “Oh, and if they ask you to speak any dialogue, be sure to write +$25.00 on your daily voucher” one of my junior stand-in friends educated me.
Wait, WHAT???  (If this was English 101, she might has well have been speaking Latin.)
“But… but… but… don’t we have to be approved by a Producer or something?” I fretted.  (Clearly this was some sort of horrific hazing ritual wherein I was about to be “pantsed”, given a toilet swirly and eventually duct-taped to the elephant doors…)
“It’s Season SIX, sweetie” she beamed a dazzling smile, “and that’s how we roll here” she added with a confident nod.
With an extra fifty bucks (!) headed my way for standing-in for the computer voice for two days, I could barely contain myself on my third day at the elite Academy.  We were camera-blocking with the tech crew, and having mastered (at least that’s what I like to tell myself) the technique of impersonating my gorgeous Actress’s unique accent on my last show as well as every nuance and movement she made, I was prepared to be the star pupil speaking for, um, well, rather, not speaking for my newest lovely Actress whose character had temporarily lost her voice in the episode. 
Still, she had a few speaking lines at the beginning and the end of the show…  Certainly I could brilliantly replicate her (four) vocalized and (four) mute scenes!  And transferring all my copious notes from the previous day’s script, I once again pushed my bookish eyeglasses up my nose and studied the precise complex actions I would need to reproduce in order to continue earning my scholarship grant at this glorious institution:
Already seated.
Walks in and sits.
Already seated.
Already seated.
Walks in and sits.
Already seated.
Already seated.
Already seated.
(Talk about an Easy A!!!)
Ironically, there remained yet one more test that I seem to have failed miserably…
In a bizarre Alternate Universe of Elitist Cliques, the sixth-season recurring Background performers had begun to file in, pointing and “whispering” conspiratorially to each other.  As the previous Second Team Queen had demanded that one section of the audience seating be taped off for the exclusivity of the stand-ins during camera blocking days, She Who Made the Rules was notably absent, and “just who the hell was the new redhead with the ponytail?”  (Honestly, for people who make a living pantomiming on camera, they couldn’t have been louder.)
“Welcome, Penny!” the Homecoming Court of blondes gathered and smiled affectedly like a happy lynch mob.  “We’re sooo glad to have you here!” they chimed in unison as my ears began to redden yet again.  “We hear you’re replacing *insert name*.”
“I am!” I replied cheerily, eyeballing the lighting grid above for a silently descending ropey noose.  “But trust me, she and I are nothing alike” I added hopefully helpfully.
“Yeah, we noticed” their fearless leader tilted her head eerily to one side as all the little hairs on the back of my neck stood straight up.  “OK!  So let’s have a super-duper great season together!” Miss Congeniality cheered before returning to her self-appointed duties of wrangling new BG performers away from the taped-off area.
Quietly bending my ear, the unofficial Second Team Homecoming King suggested that I really ought to hang out for the official catered meal at 4pm as the prior Queen always did and hover around for the entire show all night as she had always done.
And there it was:  my final exam for the first week at the prestigious private Network Academy:
A:  Obey obediently.
B:  Obey obediently (but fester internally).
C:  Fester internally (and harbor resentment).
D:  Find my voice and just ASK someone who’s actually in charge.
Boldly (mentally) circling “D” (in ink!), I strode up to my Second AD (slash prom date) and asked meekly, “So, um, OK to go home?” to which he smiled happily:
“Go!  Enjoy!  Be free!”
Wallowing in gratitude for the work (and hoping to keep my grades up!),
~Geeky P

Thursday, August 4, 2011


Suffering from an acute case of Stockholm Syndrome, I panicked at the blinking red light on my cell phone – an eerie demonic glow emanating from my purse indicating a missed call from one of three potential new employers…
I had come to identify with my current captors, knew exactly what was expected of me in order to sustain a regular feeding schedule and prevent psychological trauma, and had finally grown accustomed to the physical long-term bladder control required for staying on stage at all times and keeping my owners happy! 
So at the sight of the red light, I couldn’t help but cower at what fresh new hell might await me on the other end of the voice mail, what rolled-up newspaper awaited my puppy nose, what “rules” my new “family” might demand if they snapped a leash on me and eventually adopted me as their own…!
Eager to please as always though, I returned the call salivating like a Great Dane at the opportunity for continued employment, and hearing the voice of a Producer who actually hired me back in the nineties, I slobbered all over her in a desperate attempt to help her remember who I was.  She had 22 episodes of a Network series lined up which she dangled in front of me like a Milk-Bone; but refusing to hand over the show until I essentially rolled over, showed her my soft underbelly and agreed to take a meeting at Sony Pictures Studios, I drooled relentlessly while she checked her calendar for a free moment the following Tuesday.
Whilst I vaguely recalled the general path to Culver City and the Overland Gate (where Cecilia (my car) had died twice due to an old battery); I mapped out to the best of my abilities the general direction we needed to go.  “Since we shared a bit of drama together there, I suspect you’ll know the way” I told Cecilia, as we headed confidently into traffic an hour and a half early.  (I’m a Capricorn, shoot me.)
And sure enough, familiar sites came to mind as we motored along.  Tooling down one street to the next, here a 7-Eleven convenience store, there another one I recognized a few blocks further, a third popping up from my olden days of always stopping for a Big Gulp of Diet Coke in the morning; clearly we were on the right path.  And making a right at the light which seemed so, well, right at the moment, Cecilia idled most satisfactorily pleased with herself as I read the sign above:
“Twentieth Century Fox”
With another ten minutes or so ahead (felt like an hour), I eventually wheeled Cecilia into the Sony main gate; identification at the ready for the Security Check.  And with an “I’m-an-idiot-newbie-on-the-lot” orange high-lighted zigzag map in hand, I meandered on foot in the heat (lost again, until a kind maintenance crew took pity on me) towards the designated Barrymore building.  And passing Stage 30, I happily recalled the sense memory of spying a set being built for “Men in Black II” in 2002; the “he can do no wrong in my book” Mr. Will Smith’s luxury trailer parked just outside back then.
“What’s he like?” I had Ethel Mertzed a crew member who was taking a smoke break away from his construction team.
“Helluva nice guy!” the builder had smiled. 
So with renewed puppy-like joy at returning to a studio lot so often filled with Real Live Movie Stars, I traipsed over to meet with my potential new employer, only to horrifically discover that she wasn’t yet in the office and I was a solid half hour early…
With the meeting going as well as could be expected –- me presenting her with my most recent job line-up like a loyal Labrador bringing her master’s (mistresses’?) slippers -- she shook my paw appreciatively for fetching myself all the way to Culver City. 
“We did interview one other person” she spoke gently, “but let me discuss this with our First AD and hopefully I’ll get back to you by the end of the day” she smiled, Milk-Bone balanced precariously on the tip of my nose, leaving me hungry and somewhat cross-eyed.
By late afternoon, the texts from friends who had rallied to my support were already flooding in, each one affectionately sniffing around to find out if I had booked the job; but as I was still in the process of chasing my tail I had nothing to offer by way of good news or bad. 
“It will be what it will be” I replied, adopting a Zen-esque attitude, focusing on nothing more in the moment than completing my previous blog post; my content kitty companion napping carefree by my side.
Hearing the cell phone emit a “restricted” ring tone at 8:30pm, I knew it had to be my Federal Agent friend “Rose”, and answering with a casual “hey” I immediately asked if we might chat in fifteen minutes or so, as I was rapidly close to publishing a new entry on my blog.
“I guess I could call you back in fifteen minutes…” the Producer from my meeting at Sony suggested.
Explaining that I only knew one person with a restricted caller I.D., I apologized profusely (slobbering once again), as she laughed at my antics and metaphorically patted me on the head approvingly.   
“I’m at a friend’s house, an Actor actually, who’s the only person I know with the same ring tone set-up!” she added apparently amused.  (Did my heightened olfactory senses perhaps detect a glass of wine on her breath over the phone?  We shall never know.) 
“So we’d like to offer you the series, if you’d be willing to take it” she continued pleasantly, as visions of squeaky chew toys danced in my head.
“I’m all yours!” I responded happily, finally bouncing the imaginary Milk-Bone joyously off my nose and clutching the treat eagerly between my teeth.
Looking forward to learning new tricks, excited to meet my next “family”, but already missing my last master’s (mistresses’?) voice,
~Stockholm Syndrome Sheltered P